The United States of America is full of rich culinary traditions that are unique not only to their regions but are also rooted in foreign ancestries before immigrating to our great nation. American BBQ is no different. In this guide we’ll look at the diverse BBQ styles across our great nation and try to pick out the nuances that distinguish one area from the next.
The Carolinas offer us three distinct styles of barbeque with one common element: the pig. There’s a saying in Carolina that we’ll paraphrase: “If it ain’t pig, it ain’t BBQ.”
Purists in both states will also contend that wood should be the fuel source of choice for BBQ. What usually separates the different styles of Carolina BBQ comes down to sauce.
The eastern, Atlantic coastal area of the state features a BBQ style that smokes the whole hog low and slow for hours until the meat just falls off the bone. Once removed from the bone, the meat is then chopped with butcher knives and mixed with a distinct, vinegar and pepper sauce for which the region is known.
In the western area of the state, the city of Lexington dominates BBQ . With over 100 barbeque restaurants in the city alone, Lexington or Piedmont style BBQ features smoked pork shoulder mixed with a red barbecue sauce that is a mix of the eastern vinegar and pepper sauce with tomatoes. The meat is then usually served with coleslaw on the side or together in a sandwich.
Much like their neighbor to the North, the state of South Carolina also features different regions that use distinct sauces with smoked pork.
The most famous is a mustard based sauce known in the region as: “Carolina Gold.” This sauce’s beginnings trace back to the original German immigrants that once dominated the area from Charleston to Columbia and still make up about 8% of the population.
The Eastern and Western areas of South Carolina offer parallels to their counterparts in North Carolina. Eastern areas of the state use a vinegar and pepper based sauced while the western area opts for a tomato base.
Look, the state of Texas is so big, it might as well be its own country. As such, the different regions in the state all offer a diverse range of BBQ styles, each unique in their own right.
Texas style smoked meats
Central Texas BBQ is perhaps the most famous style of BBQ. Unlike Carolina BBQ, in Central Texas beef is king. The reason is simple, beef is one of the biggest industries in the state, especially in the central region.
Much like Carolina, low and slow is the preferred BBQ method of Central Texas. The most popular cut is the Brisket, but the Short Rib is also gaining in popularity due to its shocking massive size and even bigger flavors.
Sauce is frowned upon in Central Texas as are complex rubs. The goal is to let the meat be the star of the show and when you have a properly smoked brisket, Central Texas Style, it is a hard contention to argue with.
Eastern Texas BBQ prominently features the pig in all of its glory (But you can still have beef as well). Unlike its central Texas neighbor, East Texans don’t shy away from sauce, however if you’re a restaurant, its best for you to serve the sauce on the side. Otherwise, you might be accused of trying to mask your poorly cooked pork by drowning its sorrows in sauce.
In this region, your meat is usually marinated in a sweet, tomato-based sauce and then cooked low and slow over hickory wood until it falls off the bone. It is then chopped, not sliced, and served with traditional sides like coleslaw, mac and cheese, okra, or pinto beans.
And finally, there is South Texas BBQ (the west is included in here as well). This part of the state is the frontier of the great southwest, and borders with Mexico so BBQ in the region has more of these influences than it does with the Deep South.
Chicken, pork, and beef are all popular meats in South Texas BBQ which are typically grilled instead of smoked.
Barbacoa (from South America and Mexico) is a popular BBQ staple in the region. It is where the term barbecue originates. Traditional barbacoa involves slow cooking meat over an open fire which is inside a hole dug in the ground. The meat is known for its high fat content and is usually served with onions and cilantro.
The great southern state of Tennessee is home to two popular BBQ styles, Eastern and the hugely popular Memphis style BBQ.
Memphis smoked ribs
Memphis style BBQ incorporates various parts of the pig, the most popular of which are the ribs and the shoulder. Wet sauces and dry rubs can either be used to flavor the meat however the sauce is used after the meat has been smoked and basted for hours. It is also served on the meat itself and not on the side as it is in East Texas.
The sauce itself is sweet, tangy, and tomato based. The dry rub has similar ingredients to the sauce such as garlic, paprika, onions, cumin, and other spices without the tomato and vinegar base.
Memphis style BBQ is also famous for incorporating its meat into all kinds of dishes from spaghetti to nachos .
Eastern Tennessee BBQ takes its cues from the Carolinas, incorporating similar sauces and rubs on a smoked and chopped whole hog.
BBQ in Missouri is defined by its major cities on opposite ends of the state. On the Eastern side near the Mississippi River is St. Louis and on the Western side bordering Kansas is Kansas City.
St. Louis style spare ribs
While St. Louis BBQ may be mostly well known for the style cut of ribs it is named after, the St. Louis BBQ scene is much more than that.
St. Louis BBQ fans love their unique BBQ pork steaks, which is seared, smoked, and basted with a tomato-and-vinegar-based sauce as it finishes cooking.
Neighboring East St. Louis BBQ has its own unique dish: pig snoot sandwiches. Pig snoot is the nose and facial skin cooked over hot coals until the fat is cripsy and delicious. Sauce is then thrown on top to make the sandwich.
Kansas City style BBQ is really a unique mix of American BBQ styles. Go to a Kansas City BBQ restaurant and you can order just about any meat you like, cooked how you like it. Made from tomato, and molasses, the thick and sweet sauce is synonymous as the standard American BBQ sauce
Besides Tennessee and the Carolinas, the South is host to several unique BBQ styles and sauces. The unifying element is of course, the pig.
Georgia borrows many BBQ flavors and traditions from its Southern neighbors. Which makes sense since Atlanta is sort of the hub of the South, connecting many major cities via interstate highway. Venture outside the city, however, and you should be able to find some BBQ elements that distinguish Georgia as its own BBQ style.
For example, Brunswick Stew is said to have its origins from the coastal city of, you guessed it, Brunswick.
A bowl of Brunswick Stew
Brunswick Stew is kind of like a barbecue soup. It combines leftover BBQ meat into a tomato-based broth that’s simmered for hours with corn and other vegetables. Serve it up as a side to a chopped pork sandwich with Georgia sauce and you sir have yourself authentic Georgian BBQ
Alabama is considered part of the Barbecue Belt, along with Tennessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas, and Georgia. Barbecue Belt states have all influenced each other's styles while still having elements that make them unique to their local region. Alabama is best known for their white BBQ sauce , which is made of mayonnaise, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, black pepper, and salt. At first it was used primarily in chicken but has expanded to pork shoulder and other meats over the years.
Smoked pork is the primary meat in Alabama. Pig is usually smoked over hickory wood, but oak and pecan are used as well. It is typically served on a hamburger bun with dill pickles and coleslaw.
Check out this delicious pulled pork recipe !
Arkansas BBQ has an interesting lineage. It’s in the middle of a few different BBQ regions so it contains a mix of Southern, East Texas, and Midwestern BBQ influences. As such, BBQ fans in Arkansas enjoy a mix of different beef and pork cuts. Either meat is usually topped with a red or a mustard and vinegar-based sauce.
Grilled river prawns
Louisiana BBQ in the Bayou owes much of its flavors to the creole culinary traditions that engulf the land. You can expect seafood and pork grilled or smoked with copious amounts of Cajun seasoning.
In Southern Louisiana a popular community tradition is to have a “couchon de lait” celebration where the main event is a whole roasted pig stuffed with garlic and other spices and rubbed with various seasonings.
Kentucky is another one of those states with diverse regional BBQ traditions. In the western part of the state, Pork Shoulders or Boston Butts are slow smoked for 12 to 30 hours in concrete block masonry pits. Pit masters will burn down wood (usually hickory) into coals and then shovel the coals underneath the meat every 1 to 2 hours to maintain temperature .
Sauces can vary from county to county. For instance, in Hickman, the go to sauce is a vinegar and cayenne mix, while in Henderson, a Worcestershire Sauce is preferred.
Kentucky is probably most famous for BBQ mutton which is meat from a sheep that is over 1 year old. Mutton meat is very strong in flavor and has a considerable amount of fat. It is usually basted while smoking over coals and served with a Worcestershire Sauce that contains vinegar, black pepper, and all spice.
While popular BBQ maintains a strong hold in the South and Midwest regions of the U.S., there are several other areas in the country with notable BBQ.
When one thinks of Hawaiian BBQ, the Luau is probably at the forefront of most people’s minds. A feast that culminates in a whole pig that was wrapped in banana leaves and slowly cooked in an underground pit. Traditional Hawaiian BBQ is much more, however.
Hawaiian BBQ has its roots from Asian and Polynesia. Pork and chicken are usually grilled instead of smoked and the traditional American BBQ sauce is replaced with teriyaki sauce. Sides are typically rice and macaroni salad.
Traditional Hawaiian BBQ Dish
Chap’s Pit Beef in Baltimore describes it as such:
“The East Baltimore area along Pulaski Highway since the 1970s has been known for its pit beef, basically a roast beef sandwich with a little charcoal and smoky flavor and people come from all over to experience the tender, flavorful sandwich.”
Carne asada street tacos
In the Southwest, BBQ draws huge influence and is rooted in Mexican cuisine. Spicy, bold flavors, grilled meats, and tangy hot sauces are all incorporated for a rich BBQ tradition.
In the Southwest, grilled and smoked chili peppers and onions are just as important as the meat. Often served together in a corn tortilla, Taco Tuesday wouldn’t be the same without BBQ.
No matter which BBQ tradition your neck of the woods celebrates and creates, it all can be done on a Pit Boss Wood Pellet Grill. With 8 in 1 options including smoking and grilling, you could try out all of the American BBQ styles your heart desires.